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Worker advocates renew call for extreme heat rules after Oregon laborer dies

Farmworker advocates are calling on Oregon to adopt emergency rules to protect workers during extreme heat following the death of a Marion County farmworker Saturday.  The male farmworker, who has not been identified, was found unresponsive in the field at the end of his shift at Ernst Nursery and Farms in St. Paul, according to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health division.

The death occurs as Oregon is considering new rules to protect workers from extreme heat and wildfire smoke. The state was originally expected to submit a proposal for those new rules this month, but that deadline was pushed back to September due to the pandemic.

“These kinds of deaths on the job are avoidable,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director for PCUN, Oregon’s largest farmworkers union. “We rang the alarm. Last week, we asked OSHA to put in an emergency rule knowing that the conditions were just going to get hotter and hotter, but we were met with a lot of resistance from the agency. It’s shameful this happened.”

The state’s workplace safety agency, known as Oregon OSHA, can currently cite employers for not protecting their workers during extreme weather conditions under generic workplace rules and extraordinary hazard rules that require employers to ensure employees can safely accomplish work when exposed to a hazard.

Employers are required to provide employees with water, shade, and the option to take frequent breaks as temperatures rise. They are also required to train managers and staff about heat hazards. Many of the specifics, though, are left to the employer’s judgment.

“We need a cap so it can be really clear to people when it’s time to stop work,” Lopez said. “No one makes that decision lightly. My members need to work, they need to provide for their families. No one wants to take a day off work, but it’s really important we’re not giving people this false choice of having to choose between their health and a paycheck.” Lopez said the heatwave came at the peak of blueberry season, and thousands of farmworkers across the state remained on the job.

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